Chamber Choir Ireland and Irish Baroque Orchestra at National Concert Hall, on 23 January 2016

While Messiah dominates Dublin’s concert calendar each December, Handel’s other oratorios are a rare sight here. For many tonight, even seasoned concert-goers, this was their first chance to hear Samson live. Messiah and Samson may have been composed within months of each other, but comparisons soon fade. The intensely personal agony of Samson’s final days is a world away from the universal vision of ‘Messiah’, and Handel’s experience as an opera composer is if anything more telling in this latter work.

Singing the demanding title role tonight is tenor James Gilchrist, last seen in Dublin many years ago in a Messiah with the former Christ Church Baroque. Gilchrist’s beautifully expressive voice makes for a penetrating performance of this role. He soon makes an impact with the first-act aria ‘Total Eclipse’ and its raw evocation of Samson’s blindness. Gilchrist sustains the role throughout with a sense of calm dignity, projecting the colourful text with excellent diction – no easy task in this hall. Mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw brings warm beauty of tone and fine singing to her performance of Samson’s confidante Micah, and the two voices work together very well.

The other sympathetic figure – Samson’s father (Manoah) – is sung with sensitive poise by baritone James Oldfield, in contrast with the commanding resonance of Jonathan Best in the bass role of Samson’s aggressor Harapha. The other named character is Samson’s estranged wife Dalila, sung by soprano Katherine Watson. Her sweet-toned and agile voice makes a good impression, most especially in the aria ‘With plaintive notes’ where she is joined by solo violinist Claire Duff (leader of the orchestra), who evokes the sound of cooing love-birds with elegantly shimmering tremolos.

The twelve members of Chamber Choir Ireland sing the choruses with disciplined energy and vibrant colour. Their ensemble-singing is well balanced, though the rich tone of the lower voices contrasts with an occasionally soft top line. There is, however, nothing reticent about the solo contributions of two of the chorus sopranos, with Abbi Temple as Dalila’s feisty Echo (in the duet ‘My faith and truth’), and Kate Macoboy the Israelitish Woman. This role gifts her the most well-known aria of the night, ‘Let the bright seraphim’, the work’s final flourish, which she clearly relishes.

Matthew Halls conducts the Irish Baroque Orchestra with visible enthusiasm, and it is good to see the ensemble back on the stage of the National Concert Hall. They play superbly throughout. This oratorio is a work that makes demands on all the musicians – singers and players alike – and not simply on the level of story-telling. The sound-world of Handel’s music here draws attention to expressive gradations of tone colour and subtle contrasts between the characters, and these qualities are brought out beautifully by both ensemble and soloists. A richly enlivening work, performed with affection and drive, well-deserving the standing ovation it receives.

Programme:

Handel, Samson

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